Alarmed at the expected shift towards a negotiated and peaceful handling of the problem of militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, two senior US officials arrived in Islamabad on March 24, hours after Makhdoom Yusuf Raza Gilani was chosen Prime Minister by the newly elected parliament.
The Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher held separate meetings with President Pervez Musharraf, Co-Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party Asif Ali Zardari (whose nominee is now the Prime Minister) and Mian Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister and leader of a major coalition party in the coalition government of Pakistan.
John Negroponte, believed to be the architect of much talked about power-sharing deal struck between Late Benazir Bhutto and President Musharraf which is believed to be still intact, also called on army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
The Negroponte’s talks in Islamabad came amid persistent reports that the new government would seek a negotiated settlement to resolve the current unrest in the tribal territories that resulted in the deterioration of security situation in the country with frequent suicide bomb attacks.
After meeting with Negroponte, Nawaz Sharif said that he told the American envoys there was ''no longer a one-man show in Pakistan'' and that the new parliament - elected in February polls that dealt a crushing defeat to Musharraf's allies - would decide after exhaustive debate how Pakistan should approach extremism.
He held Musharraf's U.S.-backed policies responsible for the wave of suicide bombings and argued the security of Pakistan must not be sacrificed to protect other countries. ''It is unacceptable that while giving peace to the world we make our own country a killing field.'' ''If America wants to see itself clean of terrorism, we also want our villages and towns not to be bombed,'' he said, alluding to recent air strikes near the Afghan border apparently carried out by U.S.
This is what Nawaz Sharif told the New York Times last week. “We will deal with them sensibly. When you have a problem in your family, you don't kill your own family, you sit and talk. Britain got the Ireland problem solution. So what's the harm in negotiations?” He has also asked the United States to come up with a clear definition of the global war on terrorism.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leading religious and political figure of the North Western Frontier Province, while addressing the inaugural session of the parliament he demanded the government end the ongoing military operation in the Tribal Areas and Balochistan: “I demand that the military operation be immediately stopped and all political prisoners be freed.”
The Bush administration views the tribal areas as a sanctuary for Taliban forces which cross the border into Afghanistan to fight American and NATO forces, as well as a base for Al Qaeda to plot new terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.
Pakistanis, however, have come to see the tribal areas as something entirely different: a once peaceful region where a group of militants have turned their wrath on the rest of the country as punishment for the American alliance.
Many civilians were among the 274 people killed since the beginning of the year, but the dead also included young soldiers and policemen. A bomb explosion on March 15 at an Italian restaurant favored by foreigners in Islamabad wounded four FBI agents and underscored for Pakistanis yet again the American involvement.
In January, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director reached a quiet understanding with Pakistan’s military leaders to intensify secret strikes against ‘suspected terrorists’ by pilotless aircraft in Pakistan, according to the New York Times. Among other things, the new arrangements allowed an increase in the number and scope of patrols and strikes by armed Predator surveillance aircraft launched from a secret base in Pakistan. Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run.
The new, rules of engagement may have their biggest impact at a secret CIA base in Pakistan whose existence was previously kept secret to avoid embarrassing President Musharraf politically, the New York Times said. The base in Pakistan is home to a handful of Predators — unmanned aircraft that are controlled from the United States.
Pakistan has deployed more than 80,000 troops along the Afghanistan border -- more than twice as many as NATO did -- and lost as many as around 1,000 soldiers, more than the casualties of the entire coalition put together. The US has offered $400 million aid to train the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force to replace the Army to patrol the border with Afghanistan.
The US has also suggested to enlist tribal leaders in the border areas of Pakistan in the fight against Al-Qaida and the Taliban. The proposal is modeled in part on a similar effort by American forces in Anbar Province of Iraq where American commanders have worked with Sunni sheiks to turn locals against the militant group. Many experts point out that the experiment as it played-out in Iraq had produced disastrous results in El Salvador where it further polarized the populace and turned the people against the US efforts. Tellingly, Negroponte is widely seen as the man who organized right-wing death squads within El Salvador to wipe out dissident groups there while he was ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985. During his tenure, the US-backed Honduran military committed 185 murders and Negroponte suppressed the embassy's own 1982 report on human rights abuses.
Many Pakistani political analysts argue that the US failures in Afghanistan could not be attributed to Pakistan. Pakistan may be a pivotal nation in terms of its support to the coalition efforts in Afghanistan, but any successes or failures within Afghanistan are mainly the responsibility of the coalition partners themselves. If there is a need to do more, then each partner country needs to do more, not just Pakistan.